Kenya: President Uhuru Kenyatta’s approval of the disbursement of Sh190 billion to the counties last week was a triumph for governors irrespective of whether they have the capacity or not to manage the cash well.
But Kenyans should pause and consider the implications of a clause the Senate tucked into the County Allocation of Revenue Act 2013, that requires the Government to top up from its share of revenue the cost of devolved functions in situations where allocations to the counties are not enough.
In a system lacking objective assessment of the cost of functions, reckless governors could go on a spending spree in the knowledge that the national government would pick up its bills.
As if that would not be bad enough, other counties would have no incentive to be frugal in their expenditures because they would expect similar treatment from the National Treasury that is already facing serious budgetary constraints.
Sadly, the debate on devolution has been politicised to the point where governors and the Senate regard themselves as guardians of the Constitution while flouting both the law and the spirit of the supreme law.
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The Fourth Schedule of the Constitution on distribution of functions states that the national government should retain 35 functions including security, foreign affairs, immigration, citizenship and national economic planning. Counties, on the other hand, are to handle 14 functions including agriculture, health services and pre-primary education among others.
Transition to Devolved Government Act 2012 provides that transfer of functions should be carried out in phases over a three-year period and subject to appropriate parliamentary legislation. The Constitution lays out criteria that county governments must meet before applying for functions after they are satisfied that they have the capacity to handle them.
Unfortunately, the governors and their supporters, particularly in the Senate and elsewhere, have managed to paint everyone who questions their ability to handle the devolved funds for the benefit of their people as enemies of devolution.
By planning to take the country back into the campaign mode where it has been since 1997 by calling for a referendum, the governors have succeeded in getting what they want, at least for now.
Yet, the objective reality, as outlined by the Commission for Implementation of the Constitution and the Transition Authority, is that only a handful of the counties are ready to handle all the devolved functions. This has made health workers so wary that they have threatened to go on strike if the payment of their salaries is devolved.
Even the Controller of the Budget has faulted the counties’ budgets because they have included votes that are not in the law, including mortgages and car loans and also says they do not have the capacity to manage the budgets they are demanding.
The gap between what the county governments want and their capacity to deliver might be so wide that no quick fixes — like the meeting scheduled for today between the governors and the National Economic and Social Council — can bridge. That would be a pity because the very people whose interests all the parties are ostensibly championing could be the biggest losers.